Unions and the Education Crisis

Center for Union Facts blames unions for protecting incompetent teachers and damaging the U.S. educational system

By Jon Berry

In March, the Center for Union Facts launched a contest to identify the ten worst union-protected teachers in America and offer them $100,000 to quit – all to illustrate just how hard it is to actually fire a public schoolteacher enjoying union protection.

It turns out teachers agree. A May 6 national poll indicates more than half of teachers think it’s very difficult and time-consuming to get rid of ineffective colleagues who enjoy the union-defended perk known as “tenure.”

But someone has taken up a solution similar to ours. Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of D.C.’s public schools, recently announced that her package of reforms to turn around our capital’s notoriously bad school system will include an offer to buy out the contracts of any teachers not on board with reform – up to $20,000 a head.

Our notion of paying incompetent instructors to quit has attracted a lot of criticism, but it seems to have ignited a larger conversation.

Why would an employer pay an uncooperative employee to leave? As our “contest” was meant to spotlight — and as more than half of teachers agree — it can be prohibitively difficult to fire bad teachers shielded by their unions under law and contract. The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer recently reported just how bad it is in D.C.’s union-dominated schools: Last year, only one teacher out of more than 4,000 was fired under the absurdly complex termination proceedings guaranteed by the union. Defendants charged with murder have fewer due-process rights.

And recognition of the union problem hasn’t been confined to Washington. At a national education reform and civil rights panel convened in April, Al Sharpton and several others called on the unions to stop protecting bad teachers. Sharpton called America’s education crisis the greatest civil rights issue of our time.

These unions deserve the blame for recent developments that are as grim as they are absurd.

Just last month, the New York state teachers union successfully pressed the legislature to forbid local schools to look at student test scores when considering whether to award teachers lifetime job protection. Responding to this legislative outrage, Democrats for Education Reform suggested that the union pushed lawmakers into what “may be the most rabidly anti-public education legislation ever.”

Are test scores the only indicator of professional quality? Of course not. But should schools be completely forbidden to use them when weighing lifelong tenure?

Another dubious “achievement” for education unions: a pink slip for a San Diego Teacher of the Year. In California, budget shortfalls are forcing cuts in education spending. And under a state law bitterly defended by California’s powerful unions, teachers laid off due to budget cuts must be axed in order of their hire date – regardless of skills or ability. Guillermo Gomez was named a county Teacher of the Year in 2006, but in 2008 he might not be working in a classroom at all, while less competent union members instruct kids instead.

Another San Diego school had to hand out layoff notices to 24 out of 26 teachers – just as it was named a California Distinguished School. Union seniority is a harsh mistress.

And all of this takes place while by every math, reading, and science standard, we are falling behind countries our kids can’t find on a map.

When the Center for Union Facts launched its $100,000 contest, the idea was to jump-start a conversation about how education unions are damaging the profession and our education system. Teachers, after all, hold a critical job; like with air-traffic controllers, nothing less than A-plus work is acceptable. Unlike some kids’ games, there are few “do-overs” when we are dealing with a million school drop-outs a year.

As these stories (all from the last few weeks) indicate, it’s clear we’ve aimed a bright light at a problem that needs a solution.

The conversation has begun.

Jon Berry, Senior Research Analyst with the Center for Union Facts.

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